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Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike: How He Survives Cancer and Wins Bicycle’s Most Grueling Race

By Elaine Cassel

Lance Armstrong writes that his winning the Tour de France two years after he had less than a 3 percent chance of surviving metastasized testicular cancer (he has since won it three more times) has nothing to do with the bike, but is about surviving and living life to the fullest. How did he survive and become a four-time consecutive winner of bicycle’s most grueling race?

Twenty-five-year-old Lance Armstrong was already a world-class professional bicyclist who earned upwards of $2 million a year. When he learned that he had a “galloping” version of metastasized testicular cancer, he did what his mother had taught him to do: make every adversity a challenge to overcome.

To deal with the diagnosis, he brought to bear all the tenacity of his training methods, as well as his biological predispositions and learned traits. Three months after chemotherapy so intense that it burned his skin from the inside out, he was planning what to do in his new identity as a cancer survivor. Wasting no time, he got married, fathered children with sperm frozen before his cancer treatments, established the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer survivors, won four consecutive victories in the Tour de France and is planning for his fifth attempt in 2003. At the end of 2002, he was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.
It’s Not About the Bike (Berkeley Pub Group, 2001) is a not-to-be missed study in how an individual can overcome extremely short odds—not just to survive cancer, but to be a success in life after a rocky start. Lance explains it from several perspectives—biological, psychodynamic, learning, cognitive, humanistic, and existential.

From the biological perspective, Lance explains that medical tests have shown that he can endure an inordinate amount of physical stress. This genetic gift allows him to train at such an intense level and it helped him survive the cancer treatment that could just as easily have killed him. It is partly what makes, to the observer, his climbing the Alps in the Tour de France look easy (he assures us that it is not). He also uses cognitive coping mechanisms to block out pain and thoughts of failure. He wills himself (not always successfully, of course) not to feel pain, to feel sick, or to think that he cannot win.

From a psychodynamic perspective, his early childhood and a loving relationship with his mother (whose husband, and Lance’s father, left them when Lance was an infant) was a foundation for his achieving the tasks that Erik Erikson says are important for human development. Lance’s mother was the single most important person in his life until he married. She has been with him every step of his life-and-death struggle and now she enjoys his victories. She worked at two low-paying jobs to take care of young Lance, and she (and Lance) survived her marriage to a man who routinely physically abused Lance and emotionally and verbally abused her. She taught Lance to take each adversity as a challenge to overcome it. And overcome adversity they both did—through hard work, determination, and a belief in themselves.

Lance’s first foray into sports was cross-country running and triathlons. He was not a team sports type, but he expressly remembers wanting to achieve greatness (what Erikson might call industry) at a sport. His early successes in these endeavors in junior-high and high school laid the foundation for his feats as a bicyclist. He achieved identity as a professional bicyclist, and he experienced intimate relationships, both romantic and close friendships.

His early adulthood was the epitome of generativity. He became a professional bicyclist who earned a seven-figure income and had built himself a mansion outside of Austin, Texas. He was living well. The moment or two that he allowed himself to think about possibly dying when given the prognosis of recovering from cancer, he felt integrity about his life. Indeed, his thoughts perfectly describe Erikson’s definition of integrity at the end of life—he would have done some things differently, but overall, he felt that he had done his best with the challenges and blessings of his life.

He credits his survival of cancer to doctors, nurses, medical technology, and his mother and then fiancé (whom he did not go on to marry) who stayed by him. He did his part by never allowing himself to believe that he would die. The book talks much about the power of belief in overcoming huge odds, and he practices and preaches that power today.The effect of a positive outlook is something psychologists study as part of the body-mind connection. A new field of psychological inquiry, positive psychology, is delving more into how optimism and positive thinking (which Lance has in abundance) contribute to a happy life.

Lance struggled with the existential dilemma of why he should have cancer. He came up with several reasons. Cancer taught him how to live. It taught him how to identify with fellow cancer survivors; it taught him that life is a gift that comes with no guarantee of tomorrow. Immediately after he was pronounced “cured,” his doctor told him that he now had an obligation—an obligation as a survivor. What did this obligation entail and how would he carry it out? He established the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer survivors. The Foundation is focusing attention on “cancer survivorship,” an emerging area of cancer treatment concerned with helping patients live with, through, and beyond cancer.

Lance believes that his struggle with cancer allowed him to achieve what Abraham Maslow calls the “self-actualized person.” He demonstrates the humanistic striving to be the best person that he can be today. Carl Rogers says that this achievement comes partly as a result of the “unconditional positive regard” by others. Lance has no lack of this—from his mother, his wife and children, his colleagues, sports’ journalists, and the public.

Other psychological topics illustrated in the book include Lance’s description of biking as a “peak experience,” in which he focuses all thought on the physical and mental strategies needed to train or win. In this state he achieves what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls “flow.”
It’s Not About the Bike closes with an account of Lance’s second consecutive Tour de France win, one in which officials who simply could not believe that he was cycling at that level without banned substances singled him out for repeated drug tests. His 1999 win had been looked at as a freak of nature brought on by his cancer treatment. The 2000 win was even more implausible, even as the history of the Tour goes (there have been very few back-to-back winners).

Two more victories since 2000, and the disbelievers have been pretty much silenced. If they all read It’s Not About the Bike they would see that Lance’s cycling, like all of his life, is not driven by ambition or greed, but by the need to be the best person he can be and to use his success to be a “machine of hope” for people struggling with cancer.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College